Narrative Backed Thinking

How do we align our employees’ thinking with our corporate narrative?” This is a heavyweight division’s question. I painfully received it as an uppercut to the jaw from my friend who works at a bank. Despite being a tough question, I was happy to receive it. It indicates that banks are finally recognizing that their staff are valuable assets that must be placed on the top of their balance sheet. And as you know, assets that appear on top of the asset column on the balance sheet tend to be very liquid. They can vanish quickly if not been taken care of properly.

So, I crouched back at my corner, trying to catch my breath. “I don’t know. I cannot think clearly, but I will come back to you on this one. I promise.” Unconsciously, I kept saying these words to my friend. Yes, the banker.

Any 101-advisory toolkit will suggest conventional and readymade solutions (e.g., KPI, Incentive program, appraisal, etc.). But at a granular level, the question is seeking towards aligning two intangibles: employee thinking and corporate narratives. How can you align the unseen and unmeasurable?

One of these two intangibles (i.e., corporate narrative) is the backyard of John Hagel. If you truly want to master this topic, I strongly advise you to visit his yard as well as reading his post. Doing so will allow me to focus on the easy part of this post (i.e., thinking).

So, let us start our journey by asking this question: Why it is important to align our employees’ thinking with our corporate’s narrative? Why is there thinking instead of their action? After all, they have been hired to do things, not to sit all day, thinking.

To understand why we are starting with thinking, let’s imagine both of us going to Starbucks. Don’t worry the bill is on me. So, what will happen?

1) We will be looking at the menu to decide what to drink (i.e., Thinking).

2) We will approach the cashier and will place our order (i.e., Saying).

3) I will pay the bill, and we will pick our order (i.e., Doing).

Believe it or not, this is the exact formula “think, say and do,” that individuals and corporations use to get things done since we landed on Planet Earth.

On a separate note, I just want to say that I truly enjoyed our talk at Starbucks. Let’s do it again in the future. If you want us to meet again, you can find me on Twitter @KhalidiAlmadani. Ok, let’s go back to our topic.

On an individual level, you are at liberty to choose whatever sequence of the above formula, if you can handle the consequences (i.e., doing before thinking). But as a corporation, you are bound to follow one sequence, the rational sequence. For example, a bank must first “think” about making a new product, then discuss it with their regulator — i.e., “saying” to get their approval, before rolling it out to the market, which is the “doing” part). In the banking industry, this is not an option; this is the rule of the game.

I can hear some whispers here. Someone is mumbling Zuckerberg’s old motto, “Move fast and break things.” The rational sequence doesn’t apply to us. We will do, think, and then say it. Ok, Matador! I respect your right to disagree. But this is not a debatable space. You know why? Soon, there will be no sequence! Look at the picture below.

Yes. Soon, you will not think, say, or do. A microchip attached to your stomach will think, say, and do. A free version can sense the motion of your stomach and calculate times between your meals. Based on your past purchases and eating habits, the microchip will talk to your smartphone; accordingly, your phone will order.

A premium version will link you to a vibrant ecosystem. The microchip will measure your blood sugar level, cholesterol level, etc. and will choose the most appropriate types of food based on your body’s need. Your smartphone will connect you to your personal trainer, physician, and so on. Based on your location, your smartphone will select the nearest restaurant to make sure that you will be eating hot, fresh food. I guess you can see my point of view that we don’t need to argue about the rational sequence.

Can you imagine? What will be the implication on our thinking and creativity if our smartphones will free up our time by taking care of our daily routine needs? Not only that — if our smartphone will make such decisions on our behalf, we will even be free from advertising agencies. They will realize that the return on our attention will diminish, the more our smartphones takes such decisions on our behalf. At one point, they will realize that is economically cheaper and more beneficial to talk to my smartphone, not me. You can say that our attention will soon be free from the paparazzi, to focus on higher and deeper thinking. Ok, let’s go back to our topic. I promise this will be the last time I deviate from the core of this post.

At least for now, the rational sequence of the above formula (i.e., think, say, and do) illustrates that our thinking is a prerequisite for doing. But why it is crucially essential to align employees’ thinking with corporates’ narrative? I hope the picture below will say it all.

In the picture above, assumes both companies are operating in the same industry, selling the same products, having the same capital and an equal number of employees with similar knowledge and qualification. The only difference is that company A does not enjoy a healthy alignment between employees’ actions and the company’s objectives. As a result, their progress within their trajectory is getting hindered. Company B, on the other hand, has a higher level of alignment; as such, it is progressing exponentially.

So far, we discussed why it is important to align them (i.e., thinking and narrative). Now let’s move to the how. But first, how can you align something that you don’t know? How can we know what employees are thinking? Alexa might anticipate what music you want to hear, but your boss cannot.

So, before we attempt to try to figure out what our employees are thinking, we need to have a deeper understanding of thinking. A Google search will offer a few conventional definitions, such as the below ones. Unfortunately, they won’t help that much.

Thinking: The process of considering or reasoning about something

Thinking: the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts

Allow me to share with you how my brain defines the thinking process. Don’t laugh. I am serious. Don’t laugh.

Thinking: is a gravitational cosmic constellation — a never-ending of abstracted imaginations and flows of data, information, and knowledge, with the objective to reach a higher purpose (i.e., idea, solution, faith, etc.).

I can see the Rock’s eyebrow here. The one that says: “your *** is about to be kicked if you said one more word.” Ok, let me explain to you this definition. It will help if you gaze at the illustrative picture below.

The way that I see the thinking process is as follows:

1) My brain is surfing within its vast universe, surrounded by countless imaginary stars. Each star resembles an imagination. The more you allow your brain to interact with your imagination, the stronger and healthier your thinking gets. Unfortunately, most day-dreamers are too lazy to attempt to penetrate the frontier of their imagination. As a result, they lock themselves within their imagination.

2) To solidify your imagination, you need to support it with data. In other words, you must excavate raw data, polish it, and transform it so that it can be meaningfully analyzed. The deadliest mistake that people make is this: hardening their imagination merely with transformed data, and then get super excited about their discovery (i.e., a billion-dollar idea). Again, very few, will venture from the data frontier to the information stratosphere. The information stratosphere is a constellation of analyzed and transformed data. I understand that if you are at this sphere, most probably you will jump to doing; after all, you did tough work and reached an astonishing altitude.

3) But if you have enough fuel to penetrate the knowledge thermosphere, then we are talking big. The knowledge thermosphere consists of all the connections made between the shiny pieces of information via theories, hypothesis, studies, etc. They call this sphere “the success yard.” All successful businessmen/women hang out there; yes, Bezos, Jack Ma, Musk, Zuckerberg, all of them. The scientific name of this yard is “Exponential Trajectory.”

Let’s explore two examples using this thinking process: (1) Brian Chesky, the story of Airbnb and (2) Jeffery Katzenberg, the concept of NewTV.

Brian’s journey started a decade ago. He did the following:

  1. Thought of renting out three air mattresses on the floor to strangers and serve them breakfast.
  2. Imagined that the thought could become a business.
  3. Collected data from the first paying two men and a woman for their service.
  4. Connected the dots from the transformed data into predictive information. He concluded that there might be a sizable demand for their service.
  5. Gathered and synthesized information to create a hypothesis-based knowledge, that people would be willing to rent their spare rooms, flats, homes — and others will be willing to pay for staying in them. And the rest is history. Google it if interested.

Jeff’s journey: The TALK of the day, is very audacious. He:

  1. Is thinking of providing an eruption of entertainment “Short-Form Video Venture,” which is short-form mobile entertainment.
  2. Believes that he can turn this idea into a lucrative business.
  3. Has a decade of transformed data — i.e., commercial, academic, scientific, statistical data about contents’ viewing, streaming, downloading, and so forth from YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  4. Developed a decade of accurate information (i.e., tons of reports, bestselling publication, audited accounts, press releases, earnings announcement), of short-form mobile entertainment.
  5. Accumulated a vast knowledge base; Jeff was the head of the studio at Paramount, chairman of Disney Studios, and co-founder of DreamWorks. Which such experience, Jeff possess a constellation of tacit, codify, prescriptive, propositional knowledge. On top of that, he has a strong team of knowledgeable individuals, among them Meg Whitman, and an abundance of cash. Last but not least, he cracked the chicken-or-egg dilemma, by securing contractual agreement with professional contents creators.

Brian’s thinking path showed us how to turn a problem into a reality that is worth billions of dollars — a reality that disrupted an entire industry. His thinking journey clearly resembles Eric Ries concept “Lean startup.”

On the other hand, Jeff’s thinking path is taking a different trajectory. And here I will respectfully disagree with Steve Blank’s recent post. Jeff’s path has nothing to do with the lean startup; his action should not be seen as an attempt of turning lean startup concept upside down.

The way that I understand lean startup (I mean the core of it) is as follows: A model is designed to challenge the riskiest assumptions about your idea (e.g., your startup business) to reduce uncertainty to the minimum. All the other stuff (e.g., MVP, pivot, agile, prototypes, etc.) are secondary to this purpose. So, if you don’t have assumptions in the first place, then why would you need to take the path of the lean startup? And this is exactly what Jeff is doing; he is not building his business idea on a set of hypotheses.

His path, as you can see in the above picture, significantly diverges from Chesky’s path. To put it simply, Jeff is not facing hypotheses, assumptions, etc. as in Chesky case. Jeff’s idea is about providing an eruption of entertainment — Short-Form Video Venture: A short-form mobile entertainment.

It is fair to say that, once upon a time, short-form mobile entertainment was indeed a hypothesis for YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But these days, it is an undeniable fact.

As you can see, it is not the model that decide the right path to be taken; it is the path of thinking, based on the available resources within your hands, who dictates the right model to be chosen. Hypothesis-based thinking requires a well-known and a decade old “the lean startup model,” whereas an evidence-based thinking mandate an audacious business model.

What we can learn from Jeff’s thinking path is that “When you are setting yourself on an exponential trajectory, the biggest sin is to move linearly.”

Now, let’s move to the meat of this post: how we can know what our employee is thinking and how we can align their thinking with our corporate narrative.

You can’t hypnotize me if I don’t want to be hypnotized.” What I am trying to say is that you cannot know what your employee is thinking of if he/she doesn’t want to tell you. If you think a survey will help you, you need to think again. An employee will tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. If this is the case, what can we do? My son Faisal inspired me to use the following approach. After all, observing him playing Fortnite for a zillion hour must be beneficial in one way or another.

Instead of using a boring survey to gauge something intangible (i.e., thinking), let’s use a game to get the job done. I will share my version of the game “The Qualifying Tournament,” and then you can use your imagination to come up with your version of the game.

So, how can the game help us in knowing in what our employees are thinking? Let us run a tournament to see how.

You are at liberty to choose the winner. My son Faisal and I already know who is the champion. Yes. John, because we know that he is finalizing his new book.

A result per one employee might not tell you that much, but what if we consolidate all of the results into one sheet to represent the cumulative thinking of your employees? In such case, the game will tell you a lot about what is going on in your employees’ heads.

In the above hypothetical example, we can see that the consolidated results are showing a balanced preference among the employees’ thinking (i.e., business vs. entertainment). Wouldn’t it be amazing to know who is thinking of what? You can sub-consolidate the results base on employees’ positions, divisions, etc.

Imagine that your company is planning to undergo a holistic organizational change and the result is showing that your top executives are heavily leaning towards the entertainment side. Whereas your middle management, the younger generation is showing more enthusiasm about the business side of the above results. Such insight can help you in selecting the right “Guiding Coalition,” per John P. Kotter’s book Leading Change. Your selection will not be merely based on ranking and a fancy title; instead it will be on a deeper level of thinking.

Now, let’s run another tournament. Let’s say that you are running a restaurant. The cumulative result of your employees’ selections and preferences was as follows:

Not a single chef managed to qualify in round 16; that is a shocking news. If you want to thrive with your restaurant business, after such results, you have two choices: either your fire your entire crew or you change your business. Just kidding.

The above can tell you a few things. For sure, your stuff is still working hard during working hours, but what about their break time? Can you guess what their casual side-talk will be? Exactly — either football or movies. Nothing wrong with that, but how amazing would it be if we can design their break time, so that they can talk about things that are directly related to your business, even in a joyful way?

Instead of letting them share their passions into a passive talk — which will not yield a direct correlation with their work and the objective of your restaurant — what if we can design the entire environment so that their talk will be actively and passionately in-sync with their job aspiration.

If you know the collective thinking of your employees, you can use it to your advantage. If they collectively like football, you can use football’s stories in your meeting to clarify business related issues (i.e., using it as a bait to grab their attention and then slowly diverge to a more serious aspect of business thinking).

In a nutshell, your company’s job descriptions will help your employee to stay on course with your trajectory. In an era of mountain performance pressure, as explained by John Hagel, staying on course is not enough. To amplify your exponential movement within your trajectory, you must align your employees’ thinking with your corporate narrative.

With the restaurant example, imagine if each of your staff is following the work of world-class chefs, business thinkers, etc. Can you imagine the impact of their “thinking, saying and then doing” on your business? I can help you. Just look at the below chart. Yes, your business can take quantum leaps.

As usual, I must end my post with a glimpse of platform thinking. The below “Platform Narrative Canvas” will join duty very soon. Full details on the usability of the canvas will be discussed in the upcoming parts of my Story-telling White Paper. You can view part one here if interested.

Created by Khalid Al Madani. Inspired by John Hagel — Narrative Concept and Sangeet Choudary — Platform Scale

Before you leave, don’t you think that you forgot something. Ummm… maybe a few claps, 5o perhaps.